During these days of isolating and distancing ourselves from our colleagues and friends, I have reminded of the title of one of my favorite books, by MIT professor Sherry Turkle. Alone Together.
Granted the book was about technology and robotics, but also on the ‘illusion of intimacy’ as technology was slowly polarizing us. It was a contentious topic whenever I brought it up, having having once been a cheerleader of social media as encapsulated in my 2013 book, Chat Republic.
But today, we all turn to the very technologies that glue us to screens, to reconnect in very unusual ways. My wife, for one (who usually advocates no screen time or very limited screen time for her young preschool students) took to Zoom. To get a 3 year-old to be in on a ‘conference call’ is a challenge for any teacher, and at odds with Montessori education. This Monday her learning packets (left outside on Mondays for parents to pick up) included seeds, a bio-degradable pot and and dirt, with instructions they will use in the Zoom class. Montessori involves a lot of sensorial learning and ‘practical life‘ – it was Earth Day yesterday, after all. Yes, we are all learning on the job!
As for me, I have had to come up with creative ways to engage my students – weekly, daily, hourly – to keep them on track with ongoing projects. We are ‘together’ but by appointment only whether it was via Google Meet, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or Webex. I’ve been using Google Forms embedded into a Google spreadsheet. (The first was about how two of Google’s ‘moonshot’ programs are being revamped as tools to assist during the pandemic.). My students are working on a COVID-19 Report, analyzing data (and thereby understanding spreadsheets) formatting the document in real-time with me during our Wednesday Google Meet calls. This requires me to have to generate PDFs and data sets on the fly, when my online explanations fall flat. Just because we all have mics and cameras don’t solve the problem of not being face-to-face.
Online education is a lonely endeavor. You get to sense it after a few weeks of not hearing voices down the hallway, not being in an unplanned meet-up over a paper-jam in the teacher’s lounge, not being asked to fix a colleagues overhead projector, and thereby seeing something on his wall that gives you an idea for next week’s lesson plan, not being at the daily school assembly and hearing something about the volleyball team that makes your heart soar. Facebook and Instagram (in my book, Fakebook and Instabrag) can only give you so much.
My school is trying to fill the gaps. We still continue with our Benjamin Franklin Semper Sursum awards. Our weekly conference calls are lively and inspiring. I still visit the school parking lot now and then to meet a colleague and purchase free-range eggs from her farm. My wife and I one day took a long walk and made an unannounced home visit to one of her students, at whose home we dropped off some curry leaves. We both call our students’ parents, and keep fine-tuning our teaching methods to suit the moment.
On a separate note, I am also following an online class at the University of Phoenix. Being a student and a teacher at different times of the day is odd. But everything’s out of whack, and this is, to use a tired phrase, our new normal. We will survive!